Anthony Dabbundo (@AnthonyDabbundo)
It may not have been a Pioneer Athletic Conference game, but it sure felt like one.
Despite being a battle between two PAC teams, Tuesday night’s contest between Upper Merion and Methacton was considered a non-conference game.
Led by a trio of seniors on the frontline, and speedy senior point guard Aidan Newell, the Vikings received their first taste of basketball in their new league, in their first game of the season.
While Upper Merion prevailed 48-43, the Warriors have sent a message on behalf of the rest of the league that the Vikings will have to be ready to fight night in and night out.
“The atmosphere was incredible and we knew it would be tough to come here and win, especially in our first game,” Upper Merion head coach Jason Quenzer said.
Because of the new league format, in which the teams only play three of the six teams (randomly selected) from the opposite division, Methacton and Upper Merion had the option to play one another as a non-league game.
After having not played over the weekend while Methacton logged two games, the Vikings were thrown into the fire with a tough road game in a hostile environment.
With sophomore sensation David Duda shooting the lights out of the gym and the Warriors keeping pace with the much larger Vikings, Upper Merion had little room for error. Methacton knew they couldn’t outgun the Vikings in the interior, so Jeff Derstine’s team relied on the 3-ball to carry itself to a near-victory.
“It’s definitely an adjustment that we have to make,” Vikings senior forward Matt Faw said. “Most of the teams in this league really shoot the three, and we’re going to have to be patient and get used to that.”
At the end of the day, the Vikings size and experience proved too much.
“At times tonight, it was frustrating,” Faw said.
“They made it really difficult for us to get into a rhythm and I have to be more patient going forward,” he continued.
Coming into a game facing a frontline of 6-foot-6, 6-7, and 6-8, Derstine knew his team wasn’t going to find much success driving the paint.
“We came into this game trying to attack, but with their length, they make it difficult to score inside,” the Warriors coach said.
“I thought our guys fought really really hard,” Derstine said. “If we play that hard every night, we will be very tough to beat, especially if we can get a few more shots to fall.”
The Warriors made 11 of a whopping 36 3-point attempts, but outside of Duda -- who dazzled with six threes on 10 attempts for a game-high 18 points -- a usually great-shooting team had an off night.
“As poorly as we shot tonight, it was a three point game down the stretch,” Derstine said.
“I had a bad shooting night last game, so I was focused early and once they started going in, I had a lot of confidence,” Duda said.
The game was tight throughout the first half, before the Vikings opening night rust wore off and the shots started falling. While seniors scored all 48 points for the Vikings, they spread the ball around well.
Senior forward Chris Carita hit two huge back to back threes in the third quarter to extend the Upper Merion lead to its largest, a mere eight points.
Faw led the Vikings with 13 points and four blocks, as the Holy Cross commit hit two free throws with two seconds left to close out the victory. Faw’s presence in the paint, along with Carita and Ethan Miller, held Methacton to just three shots made inside the three point arc all night.
Newell, who spent most of the night chasing Methacton three point shooters off their spots, scored 12 points, including a huge floater with just under three minutes left to keep the Warriors just out of reach.
Despite a big half from Villanova baseball commit Patrick O’Neill, who scored all of his 13 points in the second half, the Warriors were frustrated by Upper Merion’s length in the final moments. Methacton could not find a way through the Vikings’ defense, down by five with a minute left.
On that possession, after struggling to contain the threes all night, the PAC favorites answered the call.
Despite running ball screen after ball screen, and swinging the ball around the perimeter looking to find a shot for Duda or O’Neill, the Vikings had locked down defensively.
“You saw on that last possession how their length impacted what we could do offensively,” Derstine said.
“Our size controlled the game tonight as exactly as we hoped it would,” Quenzer said.
Entering a new league, Upper Merion will certainly dominate the paint in almost every game.
But until they learn how to stop three point shooting teams like Methacton, Perkiomen Valley, Spring-Ford, and Phoenixville, the Vikings will find themselves in a battle each and every night.